side view of steel and glass staircase; landings are outside the camera’s view

Addressing the Elephant: The Importance of Infrastructure

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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris

I am an innovator. And yet, I still struggle with what exactly that means.

Say you’re driving down a west coast highway in your economy car, listening to music, admiring the landscape around you. You look up and see that there are old electrical (or maybe they’re telephone) lines up on the mountain to your left. Do you ever wonder who put those up there? How much manpower did it take to move a structure like that up a mountain? Are you noticing how many there are? And this says nothing of the highway carved out of the base of that mountain, or the metal, wood, and plastics that make up the railings, signs, and other parts of the highway that make up the invisible highway interface on which you now drive. Each of those pieces that make up your driving experience must be made from something, mined, or created from somewhere, fabricated and constructed by someone.

Last year, sitting with a community designed around learning and pedagogy in Atlanta, Georgia, I learned about maker spaces — a gathering of interested people with a variety of skills, getting together to exchange ideas, abilities, and learn from one another. This year, I accepted a fellowship called the Student Innovation Fellowship (SIF), which is a sort of maker space for innovation on my university campus. When I attempt to explain what I do as a SIF (yes, we make plenty of Star Wars jokes), it takes me a moment to decide what to say. Sometimes I describe it as a think tank, and sometimes I say that we advise faculty and students on technology use, but really, it’s a maker space where I get to explore what it means to innovate. I have certainly learned that a maker space is an innovation in itself: When we use skill and knowledge as a currency (ex. I will teach you HTML if you teach me how to change my oil), we open up whole new worlds of complexly linking systems about which we often don’t already know. This, to me, is the wonder of infrastructure: that idea that the material world is made up of so many many moving parts that one human could not possibly understand every bit of it, even in a lifetime of trying.

Infrastructure is not limited to obviously material structures like highways, bridges, and buildings. Infrastructure also involves what we can’t see in computing. Jeff Grabill, in Writing Community Change: Designing Technologies for Citizen Action, describes “the invisible quality of working infrastructure [that] becomes visible when it breaks: the server is down, the bridge washes out, there is a power blackout.” And while some of us are talking about ‘hacking’ educational tools, many of us are still tip-toeing around the elephant in the room — new technologies about which Pat Lockley asks, “Does it matter where they are or where they come from, or the reason they’re invented?” And the answer is that “It does for pedagogy.” When Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel mention the elephant, they urge us to examine online learning: “Lots of heavy-lifting needs to happen at the level of development to build the necessary infrastructure.” They’re right. In 1993, English departments were mostly uninterested in computing, and today, this has shifted largely because it had to. We still push back against tech and too often fall on discussions over technology’s effect on our psyche. And it’s not limited to English. But in tandem with the tendency for western popular culture to insist on maintaining and propagating the cultural belief that writing is a solitary activity and needs no drafting process, a similarly ridiculous idea exists in academia that one lone person can “just write an app for that.” Too many of us try to go it alone in pedagogy: to address the elephant in the room by acknowledging it’s there, but doing nothing much to learn about it, and how it got in there in the first place. Instead, we need to stop attempting to actually be the solitary writer, and look to our existing communities for assistance — we need to access our preexisting maker spaces.

As an innovator, I am learning that infrastructure and innovation are inextricably linked.

Our everyday tools are much more complex than many of us can imagine. In 1915, French anthropologist and celebrated father of sociology Emile Durkheim created a groundbreaking study in which he claims that the values we place on our time is a social construct, and while this claim is incredibly important, it is a small observation in the introduction that really grasps my attention and holds on. Instead, it is a tiny footnote which ultimately has fueled my continued attempts to figure out what it means to innovate. Durkheim explains ‘intellectual capital’ below the main text by stating that “a tool is material accumulated capital.” That seems simple enough — except when it’s not. In a few short weeks as a SIF, I have seen the tip of the technologically oriented infrastructure iceberg. The technologies we work with every day — even programs we take for granted like MSWord — take the intellectual capital of an entire community of people in order to build and maintain: inventors, designers, builders, managers, and even testers working together in a variety of ways. Like a telephone wire up the side of a mountain, programs like Word must be assembled and maintained by a team of workers who we don’t see, and almost never think about, until there’s an issue.

In 1993, computers and writing scholar Paul LeBlanc claimed that “anyone debating whether computers are good or bad for us is missing the point, for computers and [Computer Aided Composition] programs are here to stay and are quickly becoming universal in the classroom and workplace.” So I typed in “is tech” into google, and was immediately prompted to chose “is technology good or bad” by the database. On my computer (it may be different on yours), this search returned several articles by publications like The Huffington Post and The Guardian asking this same question very recently. But it’s a red herring – it’s a quick walk past that elephant standing in the classroom. We’re asking the wrong question, as LeBlanc pointed out in 1993.

Maybe learning about infrastructure is exactly what we need in order to learn how to innovate.

Instead we should strive to become more knowledgeable about the infrastructure in place that is responsible for the making of our tools. We should be asking after the who and how involved in our accumulated capital working to create our writing and presentation tools that we use pedagogically. Eleven years ago, LeBlanc told us that “how a tool gets built, and who is building that tool, will have important implications for how that tool looks and works.” And ‘back then,’ just one year before 11 year old Anna Paquin tells us about the Information Superhighway, some writing teachers were building their own software in programming languages you may remember hearing about like PASCAL and BASIC. But in 1993, all that was already changing. Today, pedagogical software development by actual pedagogues is rare. Since then, software giants have taken hold and provided us with user friendly software, that mostly works the way we ‘want’ it to, most of the time. Think about grammar check on MS Word, for example. How many of us have asked our students to ignore it, or even to turn it off? I have even told my students jokingly that grammar checkers are made by people who hate English and want to confuse everyone.

Since the beginning of the school year, as an Innovation Fellow, I have learned the basics of software development, how to operate programs I had never heard of, and how to become proficient in Apple products — which may seem strange to some of you. I have been a non-Apple user since my uncle brought over a Commodore 64 in 1982. But mostly, I am learning how much bigger the phrase “innovation” actually is than I believed it to be a month ago. Whether we’re talking about online teaching, partial online teaching, f2f teaching with hybrid components in the classroom, we’re usually talking about how to best use technology pedagogically. If you’re like me, you think about your students’ learning experience all the time. And if you’re like me, you want to equip them with the best possible tool set available to aid them in their adventure through the academy and beyond (if that’s where they’re headed). But if our conversations center around the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ question concerning technology, what is it that we’re teaching our students?

To address the elephant in the room is to ask questions about the infrastructure that supports and builds the tools we use every day — and the tools we don’t use, but might. To innovate is to know a little more about the infrastructure today than you did yesterday, and to use that information to inform your practices. If we agree with Durkheim that “a tool is material accumulated capital,” then we also know that accumulated capital doesn’t come only from the ruling class, or the ‘authority’ figure in the room. It comes from our colleagues, our students, and even from those our students interact with outside of classroom spaces — all the people that make up the infrastructure of our lives.

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  1. Pingback : In Pursuit of Digital Pedagogy: Introduction 2.0 | Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning | Vanderbilt University

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